We Are Analogue: Chris Petit on post-cinema and the Museum of Loneliness
Writer, director and artist, Chris Petit brings his post-cinematic multi-platform project, Museum of Loneliness to GFF14. We catch up with Chris to find out what exactly is post-cinema and what it means for viewers in our post-modern age.
The Skinny: What is post-cinema how does it relate to the Museum of Loneliness? How did the idea come about?
Chris Petit: With the technological revolution that’s been going on over the last 15 years, the whole image bank has exploded. We've moved into a different kind of way of thinking about visual images, it’s a kind of second stage, and there are two parallel movements. There is one that breaks images down into fragments like YouTube and then there are these marathon events from the art world where everything is made incredibly long, like Christian Marclay’s exhibition, The Clock, which was a 24 hour montage film set to real time. As far as the Museum of Loneliness is concerned, it’s kind of a conceit, it is not a real thing. It's founded on the principle that today our primary relationship is with the screen, it's not really with each other anymore, it's with different kinds of screens; both the psychological screen and the real screen of the computer screen. Somewhere in all of that comes the idea of post-cinema. The other phenomenon that is happening now is the progression to the next stage: the idea of cinema’s memory. It is how cinema is remembered. What certain writers have been pointing out for quite a long time is that you don’t remember films in the way that you see them, you only remember fragments. These fragments build up into what could be called cinema’s memory. So somewhere within that the concept of post-cinema lies. I would say it was, it is, more an idea than a theory.
What was your creative process in making the Museum of Loneliness? You have previously written cinema as prose in Robinson, how different is it to work with cinema as sound and music?
Well, I think it goes back to the films I have been making for the past 15 years, particularly those with Iain Sinclair, where really for practical reasons we started to split sound and image. We stopped relying on synchronised sound and we started to create our own soundtracks separate from the image. In a way this completely frees you; you can show what you like and say something completely different over what you are showing. And I think, beyond that, when we came to do these Museum of Loneliness projects, it was really about applying that principle and, in terms of the soundtracks, we had worked in the past with a lot of good musicians including Bruce Gilbert and learnt from them and, rather like the idea of cinema’s memory, we composed the soundtracks on the lines of stuff from the memory bank, lines one's remembered from films. And also why do you remember one bit of a film and not another? What is that and how does that build up? So I think it was this idea of making these sounds quilts from what one remembered of pieces of cinema, which is quite difficult to do. You think that this will only take ten minutes! [laughs]
The idea of post-cinema seems inherently post-modern, de-centralised: fragments, gaps, subliminal places and transitory states. How do you feel about the label of post-modernism and were there any particular post-modernist artists or schools of thought that influenced your work?
I think, yeah, in the period that I was starting to think about the whole thing, I was impressed by three particular exhibitions I saw. One was Gerhard Richter's Atlas exhibition, which was really not his paintings, but his background works. It was essentially a form of cataloguing rather than a conventional show. The other two artists who were working in the same way were Francis Alÿs and Walid Raard, again cataloguing – and quite a lot of Raard’s cataloguing was bogus. And beyond that, there were writers like, well I suppose Marc Augé, who wrote Non-places, I thought that was pretty kind of obvious but good, and also there was Paul Virilio’s City of Panic. I think that was the kind of perimeters that helped with the whole thinking behind the project.
In the film there is talk of "decommission, non-commission." Is the Museum of Loneliness a reaction to the failure of 21st century ideologies and institutions to support the arts?
Yes, by extension. I think the thing that really surprised me over the last 15 years, since this enormous proliferation of material, is that newspapers started getting fat, especially at the weekends and the Saturday paper over took the Sunday paper as the day of choice to produce a big newspaper. I remember thinking, naively, “Oh great! There will be more to write about, there will be more opportunities, there will be more to say,” and in fact the opposite happened. Everyone started producing just more of the same. Print journalism is in a state of complete crisis and practically all media that I have dealt with, from newspapers to television, is too. Part of the problem is that the whole concept of the freelance has disappeared, which is an honourable tradition and so everything has become standardised and, in a way, the arts is just as much to blame as anyone else. In a way the Museum of Loneliness was founded as an anti-institution, as legitimate institutions themselves seem incapable of confronting or really dealing with this change in a way that is meaningful or exciting. Also, in art, we’ve had Cubism and we’ve had Jazz, yet you look at everything that's on TV and even most movies and most of it is in the stone age, so there is this odd kind of pull between this fantastic technology, which is as huge as Caxton’s printing press, and yet we seem to be living in a very reactionary time.
It reminds me of what you've said about daytime television being a final frontier, and how watching something like daytime television or the news is sort of naturalised, we are not supposed to interact with it in any other or different way.
I think, even though in a lot of ways things are really stuck, it’s still a pretty interesting time that we're living through, but no-one ever addresses this. I just started watching daytime TV because you’re not supposed to, unless you’re a junkie, and thinking “Well, you know, what is it?” I suppose the other thing about it, like the Museum of Loneliness, is that there is so much stuff now. Is anyone ever going to catalogue youtube? Is it worth cataloguing? And, with the proliferation of everything, how in 200 years time do you sort this stuff out? What’s interesting and not interesting? Stuff is going on but it’s just harder and harder to locate it. I think it’s not accidental that the most powerful people at the moment are not the artists but the curators. We are in an age of curation and I suppose the Museum of Loneliness is a kind of joke at its expense.
Post-cinema explores this idea that films are not just something that happens in a cinema; it’s our memories, it’s what we forget, it’s the fragments taken out of context and re-constructed. Do you think in a world increasingly mediated by screens and the corporations that control those screens that post cinema is empowering to an individual spectator?
The reason we decided to show Negative Space (1999) as part of the programme is that it’s essentially a piece about Manny Farber, who is an American painter and critic who was writing throughout the 40s and 50s, really paying attention to the kind of movies that no-one else paid attention too. He was so quick on the B-movie before the French picked up on all that stuff. I started reading Farber in the 70s simply because I was in a bookshop and saw this book which had the title Negative Space and I thought “I don’t care what’s it about, I’m going to buy it,” and then it turned out to be Farber writing on cinema. The thing I liked about it immediately is he never told you what the story was. The problem we always had at the time, because I was writing for Time Out, was all film reviews had to be 150 words, and in that space you can’t really tell the story. So we looked at other ways of trying to explain what a particular film might be about and, while trying to deal with this problem, I stumbled across Farber who said that actually narrative was not the important part of film, it's space. He listed various kinds of space and when we made the film we added to that list by saying there’s also the space between the screen and the viewer and what goes into that space. That was really the start of thinking in terms of the next stage of cinema, which does lead to post-cinema, which is basically the movie that's inside your head: you become the accumulation of all the films that you have seen. I think that everything is so controlled now in terms of screens, I don’t see many types of American movies these days, but they seemed to be entirely controlled by, I don’t know, a kind of amnesia? I don’t know! Anyway, a slightly rambling answer!
“Today our primary relationship is with the screen, it's not really with each other anymore” – Chris Petit
In your article for Sight and Sound, 'Post Mortem', you spoke about how the Lumiere brothers would have recognised the creative process in filming and editing Radio On (1979), but not in Content (2010). Is this because of the fall of analogue technologies and the rise of the digital?
Yes, I think there was a move away from an industrial mechanical process. When I started working on film, it was celluloid, it was mechanical. You had to actually physically cut it and join it together and the reel that you started off cutting was the reel that became the film. I think the Lumiere brothers would have understood that. Then, with the coming of memory stick, everything completely changed. I think with non-linear editing it all started to change as well. The whole transition from celluloid to memory stick is, I think, what it’s about.
In Museum we hear ‘we are analogue rather than digital’, this line really struck me because both analogue and digital can be profoundly post-modern and yet you differentiate them, quite rightly, as two different technologies of cinema. Could you elaborate on that idea and what it is to be human and analogue in a digital age?
I think we are made up of waves, rather than squares! It’s quite interesting, now that we have gone digital there is a kind of aversion to analogue technology. I remember when CDs came out, everyone said you can smear marmalade on it and it will still work, and actually one is discovering the limitations of this technology. I suspect things will become more digital, I suspect people will become more digital, and this is a transformation that will have advantages and disadvantages, but things will change. Even the silly thing that happens on Amazon, “you bought this book, maybe you would like to buy this one.” It's quite scary how they get it right most of the time! And they chuck up stuff at you that is quite interesting, but they never come up with anything really original, it kind of ends up making you look quite boring and then they throw in something and you think “No, absolutely not!” I think it is a shock to realise one is just an accumulation of one’s pin numbers. In terms of the argument, I’m not against these changes, but I think that because change is so rapid there has been very little time to catch up. Like the other day, I was looking at a box of VHS. One is getting to the point that in ten years time you would quite like to see what a VHS looks like.
Yeah, it's this movement towards something you can actually hold rather than something you have just downloaded.
That’s the other thing [we did] when Museum of Loneliness started; again it wasn’t a Luddite thing, we thought it should be the opposite end of dot com, which is why we started producing these very, very limited pamphlets. People are terribly grateful if you give them something to hold. Test Centre, who I’ve been working with, are also very good at saying “actually, we will produce 300 of these and once they are gone they are gone, you can’t have anymore.” It’s the opposite of endless downloading.
Are there any new projects you are working on? Can we expect more post-cinema at the GFT?
Well, we have been asked to do something for the Oberhausen Film Festival, which is an exercise in post-cinema. We're not allowed to have images. We're doing this project called Lee Harvey Oswald's Last Dream. Oswald was arrested in the cinema after the assassination of Kennedy, he was watching a double bill of War is Hell and Cry of Battle and I thought we'd produce some kind of sound montage based around that idea and the fact that Oswald was arrested in the cinema. At a certain point in time, I want to spin the audience using an infra-red technique, preferably a camera that gives off the witnesses' body heat as well. At the end we'll have police burst in and arrest Oswald.